Understanding Your Mate

My strongest words are addressed to the wife of a good man, whom we will call Fred. He loves Barbara and the kids. Honest! He would literally lay down his life for them if required.

He doesn't drink. He has never smoked. He has no compulsion to gamble. He wouldn't touch another woman under any imaginable circumstances. He gets up every morning and plods off to work, perhaps holding down a boring, menial job for 45 years. He brings his salary home and does his best to stretch it through the month. He lives by a moral code that is remarkable for this dishonest era. His income tax return is scrupulously accurate, and he's never stolen so much as a paper clip from his boss. He doesn't beat the kids or kick the dog or flirt with the widow next door. He is as predictable as the sunrise, and I'm sure that God has a special place for him on the other side.

But Steady Freddie has a serious flaw. He was raised in a day when little boys were taught to withhold their thoughts and feelings. "Children are to be seen and not heard," said his parents. He can't remember being hugged or praised, and everybody knows that boys don't cry. So Fred learned his lessons well. He became as tough as nails and as silent as the night, but in so doing, he lost touch with his emotions. Now, he cannot be spontaneous and affectionate, no matter how hard he tries. It just isn't within him. And most of his thoughts remain unspoken and private.

One would hope that Barbara would accept Fred as he is, since she knew his nature before they were married. In fact, it was his quiet reserve that made Fred attractive to her when they were courting. He always seemed so strong, so in control, compared to her impulsive flightiness. But now Barbara is fed up with her unromantic husband. She is deeply angry because he won't communicate with her, and she nags him incessantly about his alleged "failures" as a husband. He can do nothing right and she makes them both miserable year after year.

Let's bring the illustration closer to home. Fred and Boiling Barbara do not represent an unusual combination of personality characteristics. I have seen hundreds of husbands and wives who share their conflict. Many men not just those who were taught to be inexpressive find it difficult to match the emotions of their wives. They cannot be what their women want them to be. But instead of looking at the whole man, assessing his many good qualities as they counterbalance this "flaw," the wife concentrates on the missing elements and permits it to dominate their relationship. She's married to a good man, but he's not good enough!

Only men who are married to such women fully understand just how wretched life can be. King Solomon had at least one malcontent in his harem, for he wrote, "It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman" (Proverbs 21:19, KJV). He later referred to her dissatisfaction as resembling "a continual dropping in a very rainy day" (Proverbs 27:15, KJV). He is right! An agitated woman rants and raves and cries and complains. Her depression is perpetual, destroying vacations, holidays and the months in between. She may, in retaliation, refuse to cook or clean or take care of the kids. The husband then has the great thrill of coming home to a shattered house and a bitterly angry woman five days a week. And the sad part of the story is that he is often unable to become what she wants him to be. He has seriously attempted to rearrange his basic nature on five or six occasions, but to no avail. A leopard can't change its spots, and an unromantic, noncommunicative man simply cannot become a sensitive talker. The marital impasse is set in concrete.

Churning in the mind of the depressed wife is the possibility of divorce. Day and night she contemplates this alternative, weighing the many disadvantages against the one major attraction: escape. She worries about the effect of divorce on the kids and wonders how she'll be able to support them and wishes she didn't have to tell her parents. Round and round go the positives and negatives. Should I or shouldn't I? She is both attracted and repelled by the idea of a dissolution.

If divorce is not the solution, then what can be said on behalf of the emotionally starved woman? First, it will be helpful for her to recognize the true source of her frustration. Granted, her husband is not meeting her needs, but I doubt if men have ever responded as women preferred. Did the farmer of a hundred years ago come in from the fields and say, "Tell me how it went with the kids today"? No, he was as oblivious to his wife's nature as Fred is of Barbara's. Then why did the farmer's wife survive while Barbara is climbing the walls? The difference between them can be seen in the breakdown in the relationship between women! A century ago, women cooked together, canned together, washed clothes at the creek together, prayed together, went through menopause together and grew old together. And when a baby was born, aunts and grandmothers and neighbors were there to show the new mother how to diaper and feed and discipline. Great emotional support was provided in this feminine contact. A woman was never really alone.

Alas, the situation is very different today. The extended family has disappeared, depriving the wife of that source of security and fellowship. Her mother lives in Connecticut and her sister is in Texas. Furthermore, American families move every three or four years, preventing any long-term friendships from developing among neighbors. And there's another factor that is seldom admitted: American women tend to be economically competitive and suspicious of one another.

Many would not even consider inviting a group of friends to the house until it was repainted, refurnished or redecorated. As someone said, "We're working so hard to have beautiful homes and there's nobody in them!" The result is isolation or should I say insulation and its first cousin: loneliness.

Depriving a woman of all meaningful emotional support from outside the home puts enormous pressure on the husband-wife relationship. The man then becomes her primary source of conversation, ventilation, fellowship and love. But she's not his only responsibility. He is faced with great pressure, both internal and external, in his job. His self-esteem hangs on the way he handles his business, and the status of the entire family depends on his success. By the time he gets home at night, he has little left with which to prop up his lonely wife, even if he understands her.

Let me speak plainly to the wife of the busy but noncommunicative husband: You cannot depend on this man to satisfy all your needs. You will be continually frustrated by his failure to comply. Instead, you must achieve a network of women friends with whom you can talk, laugh, gripe, dream and recreate. There are thousands of homemakers around you who have the same needs and experience. They'll be looking for you as you begin your search for them. Get into exercise classes, group hobbies, church activities, Bible studies, bicycle clubs whatever. But at all costs, resist the temptation to pull into the four walls of a house, sitting on the pity pot and waiting for your man to come home on his white horse.

Many times a man's most irritating characteristic is a by-product of the quality his wife most respects. Perhaps his frugality and stinginess, which she hates, have made him successful in business, which she greatly admires. Or perhaps his attentiveness to his mother's needs, which his wife resents, is another dimension of his devotion to his own family. Or in Fred's case, his cool stability in the face of crisis, which drew Barbara to him, is related to his lack of spontaneity and exuberance during their tranquil days. The point is, God gave your husband the temperament he wears, and you must accept those characteristics that he cannot change. After all, he must do the same for you. "For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Philippians 4:11-13, KJV).

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